A clear understanding of the dynamics of power are a huge asset in storytelling. After all, it’s the dissonance between two forces (and the power they hold) that creates dramatic tension. Yet often these power dynamics aren’t as clear as they could be. With theater being a collaborative art form and America being a culture which values the idea that all citizens have an equal voice, I think power is not something we spend a great deal of time focusing on. Or at least it’s not something that is acceptable to openly discuss in specific terms. But being conscious of it can really sharpen the conflicts in our story.
When we talk about power, it’s important to also talk about status. Status is often a result of your lot in life, whereas power is your a ability to effect it. Status tends to be quantifiable – your rank withing the military, your title within the company, your net worth. Status can certainly effect the power you have, but it is not the only determining factor. Sometimes power and status align, and sometimes they don’t. Which is to say, the king can be young, strong, smart, and conniving (having both a kingly status and the power to genuinely rule the kingdom)…or he can be a complete idiot who just happened to be born to the right people at the right time (having only the title, but otherwise being a puppet for those around him). If status is the cards you’re dealt, power is the way you play them to your advantage.
One summer I worked as an actor at a Renaissance Festival. As part of our rehearsal process each of the characters were ranked according to status. Whenever you encountered someone of a higher status you had to bow or curtsy. The greater the difference between your status and the other character the deeper your bow was supposed to be, such that when the beggars encountered the queen they would lay prostrate on the ground. It was fascinating to have such a visceral experience of status. Suddenly, for the interactions you witnessed, you had an immediate visual picture of who was supposed to be top dog, just by the way the characters greeted each other. And for the interactions you were part of, you had an immediate context for where you fit within the world.
Status gets interesting at the point where it intersects with power. Power can come in many forms – money, information, social connections, sex, physical strength. Humor can be power. Intelligence can be power. Anything that attracts or repels is power. It can come in the form of friendship (“Hey, we’ve been buddies for a long time. Would you help me out with this?”) or it can come in the form of a threat (“You better do this, or else.”). Anything a character can use to affect the action of another character is power. When you are aware of all the different ways a character can have power, it provides you with a wealth of tactics to pursue your objectives.
One type of person who is likely to be particularly attuned to the different tactics for acquiring influence, whether intentionally or unconsciously, is the Alpha. I think of Alphas as being the natural leader of a group. These are the people who emerge as the dominate voice in an otherwise equal peer group. They tend to lead the tone for the group for better or for worse. They are the true head of the snake, so to speak. Obviously, this “Alpha quality” is something of a sliding scale. There are varying degrees of sophistication and effectiveness and it is relative to context. If you cast someone who does not naturally relate to the world in this way, in a role that calls for it, you will need to pay special attention to developing that dynamic.
The Alpha doesn’t yell to make their point. They don’t have to. Yelling is a symptom of having to struggle to be heard. Similarly, they don’t have to move. Their world moves around them. While they might have the ability to physically intimidate others, they know that in the long run they are better off having a range of options with which to control those around them. With physical strength, it is only a matter of time before someone bigger, faster, or stronger comes along. The book Nurture Shock devotes a chapter to discussing how the most socially savvy children, the ones who have the biggest circle of friends, tend to exhibit the highest amounts of social bullying. Their ability to understand the psyche of their peers initially helps them make friends and subsequently allows them to manipulate those relationships as they see fit.
While power certainly isn’t the only was to look at a story arch, it can be a really great tool to explore as part of a rehearsal process, especially if the arguments ever feel “one-note”.
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.